When October kisses Gurez!
Every place has a story,
Every place has been through something that changed it
Never judge a place by the chapter you walked in on
Sipping the salty Kashmiri tea, warming my hands on the cup, I called out tenderly- “Hey little fellas! See I have ‘Nun chai’ from your ‘matamal’ – I have something for you too,” I treated the three potted, precious, beauties of wild grass, now in my garden, to two drops each of mountain dew- the dew from the Habba Khatoon spring- their motherland. Pure waters, spout from a natural spring from the base of a perfectly pyramidal peak, uniquely named after a mystic poetess, and Queen of the mountains -Habba Khatoon.
“See Papa, they love it!” I say. Rolled in moist newspapers, I had brought the wild grasses from lush and angelic Gurez valley. The alpine grasses, a living witness to the ancient silk route that cuts through the bosom of Gurez. The silk route–is a testimony, to the footsteps of traders, cattle, locals, horses, and herds. And perhaps some unknown shoes of Emperors or Rulers, hooves of Queen’s horses, some of men of knowledge and wisdom, voyagers, nomads, explorers and invaders, occupiers and looters too.
Of late, the grasslings, shyly glance, at the sudden spurt in footfall of traipsing strangers in cars-Tourists and trekkers, adventurers, and admirers, navigating from faraway lands to explore their hideout, and the ever hospitable grasses like the Gurezi people, wonder, if the strangers were well covered or feeling chilly in Gurez, or whether they even had any food?
-“Le jao apne gher”– Take them, to your home, a Gurezi Gujjar or nomad had lovingly pressed a bottle of spring waters in my hand, – the dew, the nectar for the spiky lil greenies. In Gurez and its rural environs, wild grass, is a lifeline, a wonder-wealth of the exotic locale; from turning into fresh and dry fodder for cattle, to being tucked between roofs and wood logs as insulation for warmth, banishing the freezing chill, and protecting both humans and livestock; the grass is also used as brooms; for basket weaving, or weaving the ‘Pulhor’ or exquisite grass shoes, used abundantly by Kashmiri nomads, besides tens of other uses.
“Maike ka swaad kis ko nahi ata?” who doesn’t relish food from the homeland? I heard my Papa speak out from a little blue sports cap. Papa passed away a year back, his favorite blue cap, traveled with me to Gurez about 140Kms from the capital Srinagar in Jammu & Kashmir. Papa talked to me through the blue cap throughout the trip.
In late October, a crown of littlu drops kissed my hair on arrival in Srinagar. MET department forecast heavy rainfall. “Shrugging the wet weather, I, energetically prepared for a journey into the incredible valley of Gurez, the land of ancient Dards. I casually went greeting familiar fruit-vegetable wallas, buying fruits, and vegetables, knick-knacks from Sonawar market near the politically charged Gupkar Road. Gupkar of Srinagar– houses the homes of some of the erstwhile rulers of Kashmir. Already carrying, bread, spices, cheese, salties, tea bags, kettle, hotplate, portable spoon-knife- Papa’s little blue cap had laughed mischievously, reminding me to pack meticulously, as even a gaily waving cloud, may fall in love with you, and may just hug you with snow garland, and decide to prolong your stay and enjoy your togetherness. In times when locked indoors for days, food shortage may strike if you are not well stocked. “You know na Mountains have a mood and sudden shift in their humour, can sculpt a frozen smile on you forever”, Papa teased playfully.
Of 60s and 70s
Being from 60s era, I often toppled over in giggles at the squeaking, squealing sight of Ambassador or Fiat cars, Almost cartoonish, drowning in luggage, tires groaning, rolling sleepily to Kashmir. I’m gripped by that ‘kanak’ of loading eats on all my journeys to Kashmir. So bought more of the famed Kashmiri baked breads -chot, katlam, kulcha, bakarkhanii, Sonawar paneer from Mehrajuddin and freshly baked dazzling sugar crystals topped heart-shaped biscuits. – “Enough na Papa” I ask the blue cap. “It’s funny how trinkets of memories crystallize into a single word –“childhood” and somehow, it feels just enough to describe it all.
But showers didn’t stop. Alternately, raindrops gave me a chance to sit and collect a few tips, in the company of former Director of Tourism Mahmud A. Shah, at the Royal Springs Golf Course- a favourite in Srinagar. Shah, an avid adventurer had lately trekked Gurez and Kargil, “Gurez boasts of some of the finest sights and its Wazas (cooks) are outstanding!” I laughed heartily at the combination of vision and taste, of scenes and savouries. Significantly both former directors of Tourism Talat Parvez and Mahmud Shah facilitated the entire logistics for my travel writings in Kashmir, during their respective tenures.
Finally to Gurez
News of Snowfall at 11,672 ft. Razdan Pass en route Gurez completely soaked my plans but offered an opportunity to meet present Director Tourism Mr. GN Itoo and Deputy Director Tabassum Kamli. Both officials were hospitable even though extremely tied up with the Iconic Festival of Kashmir, they arranged for my accommodation in the J&K Tourist Complex Gurez.
With nature-lover friends Hakeem Shafaaq, and Arshad Qadri providing hourly updates on weather in consonance with traffic police in Bandipore about snow-laden Razdan Top en route Gurez, I felt in a celestial halo; as if the entire universe conspired for my wish fulfillment. Tanveer- a young strapping driver was to be my handyman, cum guide cum photographer, through it all.
Dreamy Wular Lake
Midnight onwards, weather cleared, at 6.45 first-light, we headed to Gurez, past sleepy Bandipore district, manipulating foggy roads, and met a gigantic vista of 169 Sq. Km of Wular Lake, Asia’s largest freshwater body spread along 16 Kms along the road. Wular, fed by River Jhelum- appeared dreamy, enveloped in fog. It seemed fairies in diaphanous veils, twinkling with stars may step out from torn misty clouds. Interestingly, mountains and fairies have a strange connect, at times unpleasant. Gurez gets trolled with folktales of fairies, who fall in love with solo travelers, entice them over dangerous cliffs. “Beta, in other words, if solo traveller doesn’t get devoured by wild bear or snow leopards, they can be hypnotized by mountain beauties to meet their Creator! understand na”, Papa in the little cap hid a peppy laugh. Incidentally, the Dard and many other hill tribes of Aryans in this belt believe strongly in appeasing fairies and bowing to their wishes.
Tragbal by early afternoon was our only halt at the famous MTS or a Maggie-Tea-Stall ‘Aayan’. Friendly bikers on road trips- girls-boys in MNCs carrying laptops, working from the mountains, regaled me with their experience of Gurez. My Amritsari rusk biscuit proved a special hit and they made off with the entire packet.
Razdan Pass -Cobbled-top and war exercises
A steep climb took me to Razdan Top at 3550 meters (11,672 ft.); which connects Gurez with the Vale of Kashmir. Razdan also marks a deep geographical and socio-cultural divide between the two regions as separate landscapes. The Dargah of a Peer Baba sits atop the pass, with the holy Harmukh Peak to the right as we climb steadily over a snow-washed pass. Interestingly, from Razdan, a road veers to the northwest towards Pakistan-controlled Chilas. Unfettered and wild, the Razdan offers spectacular views of the fuchsia-blue mountain layers and bottomless gorges. Breathing the awe-inspiring scene, from a pebbled road, creviced into squares to endure, the expansion-contraction cycle of snow & sun, I stepped onto the fresh snow of last night; and whew! My small frame went leg-deep into the deep pockets on the roadside with my mobile camera grabbed and saved in time. Think, if I was ambitious for a live video selfie, posing with batting eyelashes et al, in a sensual reverie of relishing the falling snow, a pout, or flap of arms, this selfie could easily turn into my last one, with a live burial on camera, going super viral on the internet. The thought gave me giggly-goose-bumps.
The formidable Razdan annually entraps the lives of Gurezis for six-months sometimes more, keeping them virtually cut-off from the rest of the world, other than the lone helicopter air passage. However, the enchanting top deservingly takes the medallion for throwing in views of rainbow colors, from snow-white to bluish, to lush green, pinks, indigoes and fuchsias, tangerines and mauves to deep crimson slopes, dotted as it is with rare-algae that blushes coyly at the touch of sun rays.
As I watched the breathlessly beautiful 360-degree view, the blue cap pointed –“Razdan is also notorious for being the scariest roads in the world. No road-rails, high-velocity winds, non-macadamized surface; do you see -cobbled pavers; they ensure stronger foot-tire grip, during snows”. Papa detailed – always the guide, the educator- guiding, informing, and explaining things to me. Then again, the blue cap gently nudged me- “Rush, hold up your hands”. I raised my hand, fanned my palm and felt clouds slipping through my fingers, as light turned to glinting shades kissed me goodbye, winds whispered a song- And I felt spoilt for life.
Deep in reverie, I hear the blue cap call out -“Beware! road edges are un-railed; you could be swished off, flying on wings of wind, before dropping into deep gorges below; stay close to the hillside, keep headlights on and honk every 1-2 minutes,” Yes Papa! I reply, all senses in attention. “Hey Look!” I turn, to be fascinated by an incredible platoon of army snowmobiles zooming at a distance practicing war games, in snow-white Parka jackets virtually invisible within virgin snows; swishing amidst whistling winds on the top of the world. I see the Indian Tricolor Flag fluttering tall, like a gentle giant, watching over, supervising, protecting, elevating, and drilling the victory call -“Nishchay Kar Apni Jeet Karu” (Ensure Your Victory). (To be concluded)
Pics by author who can be contacted: [email protected]